Lords of the Niger Delta: The Shell legacy of profit before people

In minutes I suffocate in the fumes of the gas flare rising from below the line of trees. It’s a huge ball of fire spewing its toxic elements into atmosphere. The noise and the heat are unbearable. I feel my chest tightening. I struggle to breathe. I feel dizzy and intoxicated. I am in the village of Rumuekpe in Rivers State, Nigeria.

How do people live in these neighboring communities,” I ask?

We have no choice,” say the activists accompanying me “These are our ancestral lands. We have nowhere to go. Our children suffer respiratory problems, skin rashes and eye irritations.”

Medical specialists say that the flaring, which spews out a poisonous mixture of carbon dioxide and sulphur gases, has a massive negative health impact leading to bronchitis, silicosis, sulphur poisoning of the blood, and cardiac complications. Extreme long-term exposure can predispose one to, or cause, skin cancer. The nitrogen and sulphur oxides also mix with atmospheric moisture to send down acid rains, devastating agriculture yields.

The activists continue, “There are laws against gas flaring. It is technically illegal in Nigeria since 1984. But the government grants exemptions to oil companies burning natural gas during oil extraction. There is no political will to enforce these deadlines. Fines are nominal and the international oil companies usually buy off state officials. Profit, not health of our people or their development, is paramount in the Niger Delta.”

I bear witness to this reality.

Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an ecological think tank, and former director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International, is accompanying me. He says gas flaring releases “nitrogen oxides and other substances such as benzene, toluene [and] xylene … which are known to cause cancers.” The report says these pollutants can affect communities within 30km of the flare. There are over 200 such continuous flares burning across the Niger Delta.”

He adds, “And it has a huge destructive impact on agriculture, due to acid rain.”

Scientists describe the Niger Delta as “one of the world’s most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems.” Their report noted that the Delta is “one of the 10 most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world. Millions of people depend upon the Delta’s natural resources for survival, including the poor in many other West African countries who rely on the migratory fish from the Delta.” Of the near 27 million people living in the Niger Delta, an estimated 75 percent rely on the environment for their livelihood, often farming and fishing for market or subsistence living. Royall Dutch Shell Nigeria’s operations in the Delta have led to the deep impoverishment of the Ogoni people and surrounding communities in the Delta.

We meet with Chief Eric Doo, from the Ogoniland community of Goi. Previously a flourishing and vibrant community, with a bakery, fish ponds and agricultural livelihoods, it is now a haunted ghost village. A thick layer of crude covers the devastated terrain.

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Photo: Village of Goi (Jay Naidoo)

The fish have died. The ground water is toxic. Our cassava and yams are full of crude. This is Shell. This is their legacy, and our Hell. They have murdered our communities, killed our way of life. We have been here for generations; the remains of our ancestors now lay in this oil-soaked wastelands. And still they refuse to acknowledge what they have done. They use the law courts, the police and corrupt public officials against us.”

He adds with a sense of desperation:

It’s been 10 years since the oil spill. All we want is for them to apologize; to say sorry for the damage they have caused. They are one of the richest companies in the world. Surely they can compensate us for our losses, help us rehabilitate our lands and recover from this disaster.”

What I saw was, Shell, a global company that “green washes” itself in the global media as a responsible company, at war with communities like Goi. They will stop at nothing to avoid liability. All that remains of the sensitive habitats here for birds and other wildlife are a toxic funeral pyres of crude soaked wood. The dreams of this community lay in shatters; the broken promises of Shell now a distant memory.

I find a group of young people bathing in the river, shimmering with a layer of crude, and ask: “These waters are toxic. Why are you swimming here?”

We have nowhere else to go. This is where we have always swum and had fun.” I ask about how they feel. “We are angry at Shell. They have made us poor, we cannot use our lands for planting. We are fishing communities, but the fish are gone because of the pollution. If they do not work with our communities we will fight them.”[More-DailyMaverick]